Let me make this easy for you: They’re all red-tailed hawks. In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot of hawks sitting along the edge of the interstate in winter. With rare exceptions, they are all the same species.
Red-tailed hawks are members of the buteo family, with characteristically broad wings and short tails.
They catch their prey — mostly small mammals, but also a few reptiles and birds — by soaring high or perching and pouncing. Their harsh, downward scream is familiar to all movie-goers. It’s the KEEEER so often heard in westerns to indicate that the poor cowboy is under a blazing sun.
The red-tail is the most common buteo in North America. It can find a home in a wide variety of habitats, from desert to pastures to park lands. They can even be found in tropical forests and cities.
One hawk, nicknamed Pale Male, became famous for his habit of nesting on the ledge of a Manhattan apartment building that was also home to celebrities like Woody Allen. Generally, red-tails prefer open countryside. Since Maine is 90 percent forested, the red-tail is outnumbered by woodland hawks here. We do have some red-tails around agricultural fields and blueberry barrens, and even around the edges of suburbia. But the smaller broad-winged hawk prefers woodlands. We see that species in summer much more often.
September sends the broad-winged hawks far south, streaming through Texas, all the way to South America. Meanwhile, the red-tailed hawks migrate southward, too, but not very far. Bunches of them settle in along I-95, seeming to like the mowed edges. They sit on trees and peer down the median strip, waiting for rodents to pop up. I typically see at least six hawks during an average winter drive from Bangor to Portland. I tallied three on Wednesday just traveling to Waterville.
My eyes are alert for whiteness in trees. It’s a habit I can’t turn off. White equals hawk. Red-tailed hawks are light-colored along the belly and these blurs of white show up at a distance. As I approach, I confirm the sighting by looking for a streaked band across the belly. Bingo! Often, the hawk is facing traffic and the red tail is not apparent, but the white belly interrupted by a streaked band is usually unmistakable.
Of course, we do have other winter hawks. A few sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks overwinter in Maine, though if one is sitting in a tree along the highway, it is likely passing through. They tend to hang around suburban areas this time of year, lurking near bird feeders or chasing pigeons. One northern hawk — the rough-legged hawk — wanders south of the Canadian border in winter and prefers hunting in areas that are very open. A few are seen in fields and frozen marshes. A small handful of red-shouldered hawks also linger in the offseason, but these seldom appear along the highway. No, if you see a hawk by the interstate, odds are close to 100 percent that it’s a red-tail.
We’re lucky here. Most of our hawks are similarly colored. Red-tailed hawks are widely distributed, and that leads to geographic variability. There are fourteen subspecies, and some races are so distinctly different that they have their own names. A red-tail in the Great Plains may be a “Krider’s” hawk. Its head is lighter-colored and the tail is barely pink. A very dark hawk of the northwest is a “Harlan’s” hawk. Red-tails in Texas may lack the belly band altogether. But our hawks tend to be of one lineage and any variation in color is usually due to the age of the bird rather than the race. For instance, juvenile red-tails have a much streakier breast, such as in today’s photo, and they lack the red tail. It may even be lightly banded.
Red-tailed hawks are monogamous and they are believed to mate for life. They raise their families in nests made of large sticks and twigs. These nests are usually perched atop trees and platforms in the open where they have a commanding view of the horizon. Woodland hawks are universally secretive and would never expose their young to predators and the elements. Red-tails show no such concern.
Both parents defend the nest and willingly, even gleefully, chase off eagles, other hawks, and great horned owls.
So the next time you see a winter hawk next to the highway, you can confidently tell your fellow passengers that it is a red-tail. Because it is.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.